Sunday, March 24, 2013

TILTING AT WINDMILLS

Ivan Golac brought me one of my lowest moments watching City. It was at Southampton, when - late in the 1982-83 season - he comically formed part of a structure loosely defined as "the back four" against his old Southampton mates. How he thought he would stop through balls with bow legs like that, I'm not sure. Needless to say, he didn't.

Shambolically, inevitably, we lost 4-1, a young Steve Moran claiming a hat-trick for himself and we scuttled off towards the buses before anybody could laugh us out of town. In those days, City were sufficiently low profile not to merit daily demolition spreads in the Daily Mail (these days Tha Mail asks meaningful questions like was Gareth Barry's own goal at St Mary's the worst ever? It is not even close to the worst ever City own goal,(take a bow, Mr J. Pollock) but please let's not show them they're getting to us again.

On that bright sunny disastrous afternoon 30 short years ago, Golac huffed and puffed and fell down. City did much the same and ended the season with relegation as their main course for the summer picnic. In 17 long and eventful years, we had not come close to such a terrible end of season outcome, yet here we were on the way to Grimsby. Packing our bags for Barnsley. And Cambridge, I seem to remember.

Playing at The Dell infront of its Subbuteo stands and its well mannered supporters was never a particular pleasure for City in the 70s and 80s, where we would frequently leave with our tails between our legs after yet another embarrassing run around. The close confines and the fact that Southampton had a plethora of small, nippy players (Moran, the Wallace clan, even Alan Ball) who worried and gnawed at our men to such an extent that it would almost always lead to a shout of "timber" and a set of sky blue shirted men pole-axed on the turf.

There was Mike Channon and his bloody windmill arms, Phil Boyer and his floppy blond hair, Graham Baker shuffling about slotting the strikers through to wreak havoc on our trembling defence. That they all ended up, like Golac, playing for City in later years only made it worse, as none of them managed to carry off their form on the south coast and replicate it in the grim open spaces of Maine Road. 

This season, finally, we have had another disaster on the South Coast to add to the litany. A stale burp of a performance, neither hurried not measured, neither showing much care nor much precision (Barry's neat own goal excepted). Not since a grubby and listless three-nil defeat at White Hart Lane under Mark Hughes in 2009 did a City side in the so-called new era of cash and expectation look so disinterested. We can add to this the recent debacle at Everton too, although here other forces were at work, including luck, referees and a steaming Mersey Hurricane called David Moyes.
Two games to shake out any lingering feelings of complacency.  

In City's shambolic performance on the South Coast and in the eventual mess made at Goodison, one could reminisce quite lucidly on the old days of biff and bosh, as we lurched to one side, taking the curtains tumbling down with us; as we went, everything else following obediently shortly afterwards, until we were left sitting white-haired and shabby eyebrowed in a great hill of debris.

These then were matches with fine men facing in the wrong direction, other strong individuals with their shirts on back-to-front and yet others plainly in a state of severe confusion. In conditions like this, the City faithful revert to type. Witness raucous renditions of the songs of yore, never winning at home, never winning away, having a swift half and not really being too bothered about the outcome, or words to that effect. Well, we are bothered, naturally we are, but sometimes you have to just hold up your hands and say "what the hell was that?". To those who say Manchester City has no soul, take a look at those in the packed away section at Southampton. Eight hours from home, singing "we're staying up" as the title slides inexorably towards the dark side of town.....Take a look at the faithful urging one last effort as Everton's ten men play like twelve, even without Mr Probert's assistance.

 death by poke and fritter...

And, whilst you're there, take a look too at poor old Gareth Barry, a man who usually only gets himself into the spotlight whilst being bypassed by German midfielders working in a different time dimension to his own cosy world of two foot passes and easy slips and slides. At St Mary's Gareth was unlucky enough to have been involved in a pre-match error by the kit man, inadvertently easing himself into Yaya's giant boots instead of his own. This alone might not have engineered City's downfall all by itself, but then hapless Gareth deigned to put the giant torpedo-shaped objects on the wrong feet too and all was lost. His safe as houses game of punt and slide became a shambolic death by poke and fritter, the ball skidding off his toes like it had been deeply insulted. At Everton too there were culprits with their heads screwed on too loosely, whilst others had lost theirs altogether. It is in these swirling bearpits and on the wide daisy-pocked fields on the South Coast where City's title has gradually been prized from our grasp. The rest is very much history. History, some might say at this point, is what we might have to call the league title too.

At the least our earlier questions have been answered. Was a featureless 0-0 draw at Loftus Road and a lucky 2-2 draw at home to Liverpool the prelude to upward or downward movement we asked nobody in particular. Were sparkling one-way cup performances in any way connected to all of this thick soup, or must we consider Leeds, Watford and Barnsley soiled goods? On England's wet South Coast and in the eery sunshine of Goodison came the answers, loud and clear.

But now that the title is out of our reach, the hard work begins. The serious thinking begins. The gathering of nerve, sinew and energy begins. Thanks to a variety of prime examples of both short-term and random thinking by certain members of the management team at the Etihad, City's season now rides solely on the FA Cup.

So Bugles blow golden and banners fly blue, but these days the castle's just drywall and glue, and tilting at windmills is the best you can do, with the black knight of time on your lawn


Maybe the best thing City can do now is take a leaf from the great book of Cervantes and "take care, Sir" not to tilt at the wrong windmills at this jittery point of the season. Mike Channon expressed a pride in having scored for both Manchester City and Southampton. Adrian Heath, although not really doing enough of it in the sky blue shirt, intimated the same regarding City and Everton. It is now for today's wearers of the sky blue to show us how badly their pride has been pricked and how they intend to deliver this increasingly frustrating season to us all. Mistakes have been made, some as far back as last July, but the sting of St Mary's and Goodison must provoke a swift and positive response. Where better to start than against Newcastle United at the weekend. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

AGAIN. AGAIN. AND AGAIN.

Hit me. hard. Just there. And again. Right there. Now stop it. I've had enough. Ah. Once more. Great.

Bliss. No more Goodison Park for another season. No Everton in the FA Cup either, which is an obvious blessing after today's accomplishments. How can it be possible, one might ask, Mancini is surely asking and I am certainly asking, to visit the same place every year, make the same tactical mistakes, play the same lumpen team and hope - by the grace of a God of some kind - that your luck might change? How can this be? Is it just the Law of Averages that we are attaching our hopes to?

City, shorn of their talismanic central spine, Kompany, Yaya and Aguero, chose to replace them with the Journeyman Block. Whenever you see the words "Barry" and "Garcia" written alongside each other on a team-sheet, you know you have a team with a carnival float in the middle. Playing the yard dogs and hungry sprinters of Everton with a carnival float in the middle of the park is asking to be overtaken and, sure enough, right from the off, City were second into every tackle, second to every loose ball and second to each and every cross. We were even second into referee Probert's soon-to-be-filled little black book, for God's sake.

City's players, aware that this was a vital match in the slightly forlorn but not quite dead chase for the title, aware that this is a place that a long time ago turned into a noisy jinxed bearpit of a ground for the Blues, would have been primed to stand tall in the opening minutes, meet fire with fire and fly into challenges as if the planet's well-being depended on it. As a result the first twenty minutes was an unfolding festival of fouls. Lee Probert, eager to take control, began his doomed yellow card project which would ultimately fall foul of him during an equally feisty second half. Into the little notebook flew Kolo Touré, a highly irritable Pienaar, Fellaini, Dzeko and even David Silva for a snide little trip on his midfield opponent. Probert would tire of writing names in the second half and thus chaos descended, as the referee decided carte blanche instead of carte jaune would be the theme after the break.

Mirallas had already had a perfectly good goal disallowed when Osman suddenly swung a left boot at a pass inside from the tireless Coleman. The ball shot off his foot at such pace and with such effect that, as it approached Joe Hart, it suddenly and violently swerved past him into the top corner like a frisby taken by a playful gust of wind. In a game full of tugging, pulling and tripping, this was very much like unearthing a sapphire from a giant heap of horse dung. Sadly, it was not a sapphire for us, but one the neighbours had found in their own dung heap of fouls and fizzing tackles.

When Pienaar, a little too nervy from the start, began the 2nd half with another clattering foul, Probert had seen enough. Carte rouge. This had two essential effects: it racked up the crowd's state of aggression and self-pity to orange alert level and it made Everton run around even more agitatedly. City were trapped in a heaving wasps' nest. Red hot atmosphere. The locals baying for anything and everything. Even the anonymous garcia was attracting a torrent of boos every tentative touch. Call then for the men of steel: Nasri, then Clichy. Bon nuit, Paris, as they say in these parts.

Garcia and Barry stop for a cup of tea
Our summer transfer activity was coming home to roost in front of our very eyes. On came Sinclair, to no effect whatsoever. Were we to have had, say, Robin van Persie or, say, Eden Hazard, to throw into the mix, you can't help thinking there might have been, say, another twelve to fifteen points on the board.

A degree of misfortune decorates our feelings of emptiness. When Probert called Fellaini's handball in the area (three feet or so inside the area) a free kick two feet outside and failed to send off the Belgian, you knew time was up on City's title defence. You do not lose a title race in one game, but if one game can encapsulate why you have lost it, here it was staring us all glumly in the face.

Time ran out with Jan Mucha, a clown with big painted gloves last week, playing out his blinder with blocks from Zabaleta and Milner. There really was no space anywhere, no last redemption for Blues. In fact, it is worse than that. Last minute euphoria for the locals. Clichy, as you might expect in a bear knuckle fight like this, lost out as he tried to pat a delicate outside of the foot pass through a pair of burly home men. Coleman for the umpteenth time runs the length of the pitch - at speed - delivering to Jelavic, whose weak shot loops off the retreating Clichy's tackling foot and wobbles like a slightly deflated beach ball over the prone Joe Hart.

"They're going mad and they're right to go mad!"
The place is in uproar. For Everton these days the annual defeat of Manchester City is like Gallipoli. The supporters had managed to replace last week's chorus of booing with a state of elation seldom seen outside Champions League finals. There has been a lot of talk in the week that saw the Premier League's final two Champions League contestants swatted easily aside (don't kid yourselves, Arsenal) that we are losing quality in the Premier League, but we could never see the truth through all Sky's purple smoke and frothy hyperbole. Everton's lofty position in the league is more clear evidence of this. They do what they do, but you cannot imagine it bothering Juventus and Bayern anymore than a wasp sting might bother a wildebeest. Everton are happy. Deliriously happy. Watching the sweat drenched blotchy faces come forward for their interviews, two things strike me: you can't help wondering if they should be wearing their combat medals for such an occasion, neither can you help wondering where they would be without the incredible force of will of their manager David Moyes driving them on. We will possibly see about that next season.

When Nil Satis Nisi Optimum meets Superbia in Proelia, something has to give, but this was far from the best and any battles were being won by the dark blues.

Hart: 6 - commanded his space well enough; delivery accurate; beaten by a wonder strike and a wobbily beach ball
Zabaleta: 7 - Best of a grim clutch; never-say-die is the least you get from the Argentinian.
Nastasic: 6 - Ill at ease even though much of the game saw him with only Anichebe to marshall
Touré: 6 - The same. Anichebe, a clearly limited striker, proved the complete handfull for the centre-back pair.
Kolarov: 6 - You could see why he was there ahead of Clichy, but the loss of pace on that side was conspicuous.
Garcia: 5 - inaffective, sideways shuttling. Never sought out the piercing pass.
Barry: 5 - In a mess alongside the equally slow Garcia. Not the pairing to pull up any tree roots with.
Silva: 6 - Largely inaffective because of the lack of space, but still worked some opportunities for Milner.
Milner: 6 - Lively and persistent, but made little headway playing out wide where the greater space was an illusion.
Tevez: 6 - As usual, cannot fault the energy levels and looked dangerous around the box, but no clear result from all that effort.
Dzeko: 6 - Goes down too easily. Problems holding the ball up with the cavalry horses neighing in his ears all afternoon.
Subs: Clichy: ineffectual. Nasri: flitted around. Sinclair: ineffectual.

Mancini: 5 - Knows what to expect from Goodison after all this time. Same mistakes as previously. His side was too slow into the tackle, too slow to move the ball on and too slow to create chances. At the one ground where speed of thought and limb counts, this was palpably missing.



Friday, March 8, 2013

THE BARNSLEY CHOP

FA Cup quarter finals. Still can't quite get used to them. One day all of this will seem normal.

When Barnsley were dispatched in 1993, a two-nil win was enough to push City into a quarter final tie with Tottenham at Maine Road. City supporters gasped at the splendour of it all. I vividly remember the build-up to the Spurs tie. The huge anticipation. That terrible nervousness that grips you before a really important match against decent, dangerous rivals, in a cup tie that could lead to a semi final for the first time in 13 years. Eating properly is put on hold, the week with its menial tasks and humdrum work cannot be shifted fast enough, the weekend dawns with mountains of apprehension and anticipation. On this occasion, there would be a new stand opened too. The great sprawling decks of the dear old Platt Lane had been torn down and replaced by The Umbro Stand, a sort of plastic egg box vision of a Swalesian future, and would house City supporters for the very first time.

"...and it must be. Yes it is!. Nayim bags his third!...." 

Then the awful realisation. The stench of horse shit. The dancing metaphors for decay and rubbish. The baying and the weeping. Rag-tag teenagers on the pitch, followed swiftly by half of Manchester constabulary's horsebound troops. A cavalry charge amongst the steaming dollops. Jimmy Hill telling the televiewing nation to look away. Spurs fans delighting in our shambolic disorder. A cup exit seemed only half of the problem. This was City on the steady slope to oblivion. the small time thinking that would land us all square on our arses in the second tier three short years later.

But first, to understand what we have on our plate this weekend, we must travel further back, to 1981, when disorder and police horses were as normal as hotdogs and mustard. It was part of the furniture. Certainly when City followers turned up at Barnsley in early December for a League Cup 4th round tie, the anticipated run-around both on the pitch and off it, came to pass. You walk down a steep hill from Barnsley station to get to Oakwell, which in those days was a cavernous testament to the joys of simple terracing.

Nearly 34,000 packed the old ground that night and I swear not more than 3,000 were seated. Both ends housed massive steep tracts of terracing, shallow steps climbing all the way up to the very edges of the sky. To our left, a great roofed terrace swept the length of the pitch and to our right, the rickety Main Stand gathered in the few seats that existed in the house, before cascading down into a huge open paddock along the touchline. The place was throbbing two hours before kick-off. The streets and alleys outside an intoxicating mix of apprehension and glee.

The roof to the left screamed "Smiths Bitter" from one end to the other and it was being lifted joint by joint from its frames when Trevor Aylott's towering header found the corner of Joe Corrigan's net. For a full description of that classic night, you can read on here. Suffice to say, it was one of those games, one of those football experiences (before that term came to mean stadium tours, a free programme and a souvenir foam hand) that would not leave you for a very long time.

Memories of a trip to Barnsley stayed with you in those days, firmly locked in the archive marked "Hair Raising".

City open season 83-84 at Maine Road with a 3-2 success over Barnsley
Our conquerors went out to Liverpool at Anfield in the next round and that was very much that as far as our relationship with the South Yorkshiremen was concerned.

That is until the Swalesian dystopia took a hold of us again and City ended up falling into the unkempt garden of the second division. What ignominy. What joyless days those were. What terrible, scruffy company we were being asked to keep. We dragged ourselves down to Selhurst Park for the first City game in the second tier for 18 years. A 2-0 win set us up for the following Saturday's first Maine Road taste of this level. One wondered what degree of funereal atmosphere might ensue, what kind of deathly, pallid football, what sort of mind-numbing celebration of banality we might encounter.

The opponents that sunny day?

Barnsley, of course.

Barnsley's McCarthy makes his City debut at Cambridge
I stood on the Kippax that afternoon, in my usual spot half way up the grand old steps, near enough to the divide with the away fans to be part of the song and dance routines, far enough from the fencing and struts to have my customary good view of both goals. My first surprise was the crowd. We had been relegated the previous year with attendances dwindling rapidly to the mid twenty-thousands and lower. Only the death throes with Luton brought out a masochistic 42,000.

The Platt Lane was full. Barnsley appeared to be backed by a noisy mass of around 5,000. Elbow room on the Kippax was freer than in previous seasons but still more than 25,000 had turned up to launch City's season. And what a launch we gave them. Maine Road witnessed the birth of the Tolmie-Parlane axis (more of a home made raft than an axis in truth, but still it worked! they scored!). 3-2 it finished, a throbbing, cut and thrust game, high on tension and drama, littered with good intentions and lapped up by a crowing crowd, unsure whether to let surprise break into enthusiasm or not.


By the time we met Barnsley at Oakwell, City's four-into-three-won't-go season was taking proper shape. Chelsea, Newcastle and Sheffield Wednesday were all too big for this league and City were on course to miss out. A 5-0 reverse to a Newcastle side fielding the Keegan-Waddle-Beardsley triumvirate upfront cleared our minds of any optimistic hopes. Both Newcastle and Wednesday came to Maine Road and won in front of 42,000 crowds. It was proving to be fun but not quite enough fun, if you know what I mean.

Or at least, the wrong sort of fun.

By this time, the block of salt that had barred our way in the famous League Cup tie at Oakwell was shoring up the Blues rearguard. How we needed the giant almost military stiffness of Mick McCarthy. Alongside him the likes of Ken McNaught, a shop-soiled Kenny Clements and poor old Geoff Lomax certainly required something sold to anchor themselves to. On the Kippax we needed something stiff to drink. A 1-1 draw in front of a less than intimidating Oakwell half-house of 17,000 did City's hopes no favours.

We would be meeting Barnsley again the following season...



In 1985 City struggled back up. No frills, quite a few disasters along the way, with the ultimate prize secured, Manchester City fashion, in a nail-biting finale against Charlton Athletic. I lost my Pringle sweater, my programme and my dignity that day on the Kippax, turned for the afternoon into a great heaving Quatermass experiment of cavorting uncontrollably drunk men. If there were women in there too, God help them. 47,000 was the official, Swalesian, tax-avoiding, crowd figure.

Barnsley had been a less intimidating prospect that second season down with the diddy men and we would not re-encounter the reds of South Yorkshire until sliding back down a division two years later. In the four games against them between 87 and 89, the South Yorkshire side would beat City twice, one of them a painful and potentially damaging home reverse on the final straight towards promotion.

1993 saw the only FA Cup tie between the sides, the real link to this weekend's game. The smiles were back on Maine Road faces thanks to a spurt of good form under Peter Reid's stewardship. His predecessor, Mel Machin, had been removed by Peter Swales for not smiling enough. The famous "repartee" that he was supposed to have with the Kippax faithful lost in a blanket of dourness and sensible planning. Sensible planning was not for Swales.

Suddenly here was Machin again, in charge of Barnsley and full of the airs of spring. To add to the jollity, he brought ex-City players Biggins, Fleming and Taggart with him. Again backed by a mighty phalanx of vociferous Yorkshire folk in the North Stand, the visitors gave a great account of themselves, the lank-haired Currie bringing a series of decent saves from Tony Coton. Eventually, a close range double from David White wiped away any vestiges of a smile from Machin's face and City moved through to face the disgrace and catastrophe of that epic excrement-strewn Tottenham quarter final.



In City's more recent divisional wanderings, our old Yorkshire foes have been frequently encountered, with a continuation of the mixed results of the past. Barnsley have provided City with tough resistance on many an occasion, but it is perhaps to the most recent matches that we should look to glean a clearer picture of where our two clubs stand today. After 30 years of winning, drawing and losing against this spirited foe, our previous three read thus:

won 3-0;              won 5-1;                won 7-1
A mathematician might tell you better than I what the next numbers in that series might be, but, given the fighting spirit shown in those past encounters, it would perhaps be wise to hope for nothing more than a slender success for our beloved Blues on this occasion. 

MORE RECENT TIMES - 1996: City lose home and away to Barnsley in the second division. Desperate days on the way to the third. here Uwe Rosler loses out at Oakwell in a dismal 0-2 defeat.


GARETH TAYLOR, scorer of one of the three goals in a coruscating home win on the way to promotion in 1999, climbs to win a header at Maine Road. The game finished 3-1 in a season when Barnsley themselves drove hard for honours.

MARCH 2000 and the unedifying sight of Lee Mills ploughing forward in a City shirt, at Oakwell in a 1-2 reverse that damaged City's chances of going up, as they chased Ipswich and Charlton for automatic promotion.
2002 DOWN AND UP AGAIN: Darren Huckerby leads the charge as Barnsley are swept aside 5-1 in the game that clinched promotion back into the Premier League, a match made famous by the extravagant tricks of the maestro Ali Bernarbia. Huckerby had reason to remember the away game at Barnsley that season too, scoring in a first half avalanche that led to a 3-0 win in South Yorkshire.








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